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Business intelligence apps help customers organize and understand data

Customers who have a lot of data and need a way to absorb its value are turning to channel solution providers for business intelligence tools.

The use of business intelligence (BI) solutions is rising among companies that are seeking to act on customer trend, sales pipeline or business expense information more proactively.

The lingering effect of the U.S. recession is one driver of these investments, as is the rise of online channels for sales and customer support, according to solution providers currently advising clients on the use of  BI and data analytics to their advantage.

“One big focus is helping tie multichannel data together, including social media and what is going on from a Web perspective. … Companies are asking, ‘Help us get ready for what is coming next,’” said Tom Chew, of Seattle-based solution provider Slalom Consulting.

“Businesses that are starting to invest in business intelligence are the ones that see IT as an asset,” said Dave Sobel, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for Virtualization and the former CEO of Evolve Technologies (acquired in January by Network Depot of Reston, Va.) “They want to use it and consume it and make decisions from it.”

In early January 2012, Forrester Research published a report called, “The Future of BI: Top 10 Business Intelligence Predictions for 2012,” in which the research firm suggested at least half of the companies that participate in ongoing research panels plan to increase their use of BI software over the next two years. The actual penetration of this technology today is far lower, often because IT organizations are trying to bite off projects that are too large and that don’t allow companies to move quickly enough.

Forrester writes in its report:

 “In 2012, expect IT to start embracing agile [business intelligence] tools, such as ones based on flexible in-memory models, in addition to enterprise-grade [business intelligence] tools and standards. For information workers who need information anytime and anywhere, agility concerns will trump standards.”

One basic way to help a company benefit from BI is to create dashboards that monitor select key performance indicators, solution providers said. Often, executives are looking for simple information that bridges previously separate data siloes for marketing, finance and sales, Chew said.

Another big push is access to this information from mobile platforms including iPads and smartphones. “It is all about exposing this data,” he said.

SMBs turn onto BI
While there are more off-the-shelf business intelligence solutions than in the past, technology solution providers might want to consider managed services that help generate these reports for smaller companies on an ongoing basis, said Jared Steele, manager of business development and marketing for Corporate Information Technologies, a technology integrator in Charlotte, N.C. The common pain point is accountability. “More and more, SMBs need to attest to where every single dollar is going,” Steele said.

The most effective business intelligence products alert companies proactively when metrics are missing their targets or whether a spending pattern is out of the ordinary, solution providers said. This has the effect of keeping smaller issues from becoming more serious problems down the road.

“There is a real difference in knowing at the end of the month how you did and knowing on the fifth of the month how you are doing,” Sobel said.

About the expert
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York City area with more than 20 years’ experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a B2B trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.

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